THE COMING HOBBESIAN WORLD

Wall Street Journal on December 3, 2015, reviewed Peter Zeihan’s book The Accidental Superpower (371 pages, 2014). Excerpts below:

Peter Zeihan begins “The Accidental Superpower” by declaring that he has “always loved maps.” From this unremarkable claim springs a lively, readable thesis: how the success or failure of nations may rest on the very ground beneath their feet…Mr. Zeihan stresses the more prosaic forces that shape world events: topography, soil quality, access to water. Water especially, he says, sorts winners from the rest. It can be a highway, a barrier, a larder and a battery. Rivers make it cheap to transport goods and people, enabling the efficient mixing of ideas and markets. The capital that might otherwise be spent on, say, building a road may be used for other purposes.

It happens that the United States—the “superpower” of Mr. Zeihan’s title—is blessed with 12 major navigable rivers, including the Mississippi. Much else flows from this happy accident. A less pressing need for grand, land-based infrastructure projects, for example, may lessen the need for centralized coordination, encouraging small government.

Other great powers, or former ones, have enjoyed one or two geographical advantages—think of Egypt’s mighty Nile or Britain’s status as an island nation, from which its great naval tradition comes. But no nation combines America’s easy navigability, abundant cropland and a moat the size of two oceans. The geographical underpinning of America’s global role makes it likely that U.S. supremacy will endure for some time to come.

The bulk of “The Accidental Superpower” peers into the future as Mr. Zeihan, a former analyst at the geopolitical security firm Stratfor, tries to imagine where the world, and particularly America, is headed. Conjecture is de rigueur in the geopolitics genre—sometimes to its peril.

The overarching theme is that we are moving into an ever more chaotic world—an idea that may sound familiar.

(Think of two much-discussed articles from the 1990s: Robert Kaplan ’s “The Coming Anarchy” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”) Mr. Zeihan’s prediction, though, derives from a startling proposition: that the U.S., during the Cold War, “turned geopolitics off,” if only temporarily.

Mr. Zeihan is referring to the 1944 Bretton Woods settlement. By establishing a monetary and trading system underpinned by U.S. military and economic might, the settlement effectively bribed Western Europe’s tribes to set aside their blood feuds and band together to help hold off the Soviet Union. In return, the allies got access to the American market—the only functioning one amid the ruins of 1945—as well as the protection of the only global navy still afloat and, what’s more, a nuclear umbrella.

Mr. Zeihan says that the Bretton Woods settlement is now unraveling—largely because it is no longer essential to the country that underwrote it.

…Mr. Zeihan’s point isn’t that America is about to isolate itself; it is rather that America may see the logic of retrenching, and retrenchment will destabilize a world built on U.S. commitments. Risk-free shipping lanes, for instance, are critical to major exporters such as China and Germany. Without American power, the fate of globalized supply chains is called into question. Signs of disruption can be seen in China’s push to directly control mines and oil fields overseas and in widespread doubts about whether an American president would send troops to defend NATO allies in the Baltic states. The assumptions underlying the postwar order have loosened already.

Mr. Zeihan’s grim conclusion: The world may be headed toward a “Hobbesian period” of rivalry over resources lasting 15 years or so. Economic pressures will be intensified in many regions by aging populations that make demands on overburdened, unreplenished economies. The U.S. doesn’t escape entirely, in Mr. Zeihan’s telling, but it does better in relative terms—aided by its geographical advantages and also, for instance, by its ability to assimilate immigrants.

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